Migrant worker, California, 1935
by Dorothea Lange
Migrant Worker in the Editorial Field
by Sean Patrick Murphy
I am a migrant worker in the editorial field.
Once again, I find myself on the corner in Dracut center. It's about 6:30
a.m. and it's cold. The few of us standing there, waiting for Ramón,
stamp our feet on the pavement in a futile attempt to drive out the raw
Janet is there, her wild red hair blowing in the dawn wind. She's aged
since I saw her last, and that was only a few months ago. She is, of course,
smoking her menthol cigarettes.
"Where ya been?" she asks, exhaling a huge puff of smoke, exaggerated
by the cold and the wind.
"Online," I reply, trying not to look her in the eye.
"Oh, the Internet, huh? Big bucks," she smiles. I know what's
coming next. "So what happened?"
"It, uh, it didn't work out," my voice trails off.
Janet smirks. "You didn't fall in love again, did you?"
"No, I did not fall in love again," I say, defensive. Janet
knows me. We've known each other a long time. 'Too long,' I think.
"So what happened?" she asks again.
"They said I didn't have the right skill set for the job."
"Skill set. That's a new one." Janet laughs.
"Yeah, evidently my copy editing skills were not what my boss wanted."
"He gonna give you a reference?"
"It was a she and yes, she said she'd give me a reference."
"Oh, a she, huh?" She blows smoke again. I start to hate her.
"They were all shes. The only other guy in the office was the publisher.
And God knows he was never around."
"Must've been tough for you."
"All those women and your roving poet's eye…" her words
ended in a cackle.
"You know, sometimes you’re a real bitch, you know that?"
"It's one of my endearing qualities, sweetheart."
I look around at the corner we're all standing on. There are five of us.
There's Gus, who never talks to anybody. Last I heard he was slinging
superlatives for a PR firm in Concord, New Hampshire. What he's doing
back on the corner I don't know and probably never will. And then there's
Tony. Ph.D. from Brown. He blew a fuse while teaching at Northeastern
a few years back. Poor bastard. He lives in a halfway house down the road.
A van drops him off and picks him up. He proofs mostly. And then there's
loudmouth Walt. Walt's always got a scheme going, always on the verge
of writing the Big Book. He'll tell you all about the time he was a big
time reporter in Akron. His wife, who teaches school where my kids go,
left him about two years ago once she realized he was full of shit. Poor
woman. Slaved away to support him and his Big Book. All he was doing that
whole time was drinking, annoying old colleagues and acquaintances with
long phone calls, and seducing teenage waitresses. He mostly enjoys editing
pornography written by middle-aged housewives. I guess there's good money
Here comes Ramón.
'Finally,' I think, wanting to rid myself of the depressing image before
me. The truck, which looks and smells like it was hauling chickens the
day before, pulls up along the curb. Ramón, red baseball hat covering
his greasy black hair, emerges from the truck. He swaggers, which to me
always looks stupid with anybody but looks especially ridiculous with
a guy like Ramón, who stands about five-foot-five.
"All right, Walt. Jiggly Cleavage Press is looking for the right
guy to edit their filth. Rate's $35 bucks an hour. All week. Want it?"
Ramón loves playing the Big Boss. He doles out the assignments
one by one. He doesn't just lay them out and let us pick. He thinks he
knows our talents so well he can choose our assignments for us.
Walt doesn't need to say anything. He hops on the back of the truck. I
notice (and wish I didn't) that he's already got a boner.
"Okay, let's see… Psycho! Front and center!" I want to
punch Ramón in the face. Tony shuffles up to the little Mexican
and looks at him with his haunted eyes.
"Textbook. Algebra. Proofing. Can you handle it?"
Tony nods wordlessly.
"Got your funny pills, Psycho?"
"Yeah," Tony murmurs. "Right here in my shirt pocket."
"Good boy! Hop on!"
"Gus! Juicy one for ya - seems they need a hatchet man at a PR firm
in Boston. Guess their lead copywriter is a prima donna and they need
to scare him a little bit. You up for it?"
Gus nods silently and heads for the truck.
"Hold on, Gus. This one's downtown, know what I mean? You got a tie?"
"Of course," Gus says, and pulls out a bright yellow tie. It
is, of course, a clip-on.
"Always the professional, Gus. I like that! And a power tie to boot.
You guys crack me up."
So far, Ramón pretends I don't even exist.
"Janet. Same as always?"
"Sounds good," Janet says. She stomps out a cigarette and clambers
on the back of the truck.
Ramón looks me over for a good minute before he approaches me.
"So, you're back, eh, fat man?"
I take the insult in stride. After all, it's people like Ramón
who put food on the table for people like me.
"Where you been, el grande, huh? You been in the nursing homes, whispering
you're sweet words to old ladies, huh? Maybe you think you get them to
wet their panties one last time, they'll leave you all their money, huh?"
Ramón grins widely and I see the gold in his teeth. And I think
how can such a precious metal exist in the mouth of such a profane man?
"Mira, pendejo…" I start and then hold my tongue. I know
some Spanish, but I'm no match for a native speaker. I know what's coming.
The only phrases I pick up in the torrent of pejoratives hurled at me
by Ramón are "son of a bitch" and "I shit in your
"What's the matter?" he asks, finally breaking into English.
"Gato got your lengua? You wanna speak trash in Spanish, huh? To
Ramón?" He looks at me hard. I swallow and look down at my
"Lo siento," I whisper. That means "I'm sorry."
"You're damn right you're sorry, gusano." Gusano is a worm.
"So, what's the assignment?" I ask.
"First, we gotta check you out."
"Oh, come on, Ramón. You know I'm prepared."
'Here it comes,' I think. 'The fucking checklist.'
As Ramón prepares to ask me the humiliating litany of questions,
I am amazed at his cruelty. It is the cruelty of the stupid and the bored.
And Ramón was both.
"Pens?" he asks.
"Three black, three blue."
"Two number two, black, and two red."
"I got 'em. Come on, Ramón!"
He means Associated Press. "Got it."
"Yes." That’s the Chicago Manual of Style.
"Ooh, looks like one of those old ladies was nice to you at Christmas,
I look at him, unflinching.
"Okay, get in."
I hop in the back, glad that something good, like a paycheck, will come
from what I've had to endure. I don't even know what the job is, but I'll
proof milk cartons at this point.
Ramón starts to head back to the driver's seat, and then abruptly
"One more question, gusano."
'Oh, no,' I think. 'Here it comes.'
"You speak Yiddish?"
"Yiddish. You speak it?"
"Get off the truck."
"What? Wait a minute!"
"No Yiddish, no job, gusano. Get off my truck."
"What's the job?"
At this point, Ramón is dragging me off the back of the truck.
"An anthology. Some Jew thing."
I am now off the truck, watching Ramón swing gleefully into the
"Sorry, fat man! Maybe mañana, huh?" he shouts to me
I stand in the dawn on the corner, the smell of diesel and Janet's Anais
Anais hanging in the air as the truck pulls away.
'Maybe mañana,' I think.
copyright 2003, sean patrick murphy